how do you manage people who speak another language?

I’m hoping for readers’ help on this one. A reader writes:

I’m a supervisor at a restaurant with a mostly Hispanic kitchen crew. Our general manager speaks OK Spanish, and a couple of the kitchen crew speak both languages, but I’m finding myself more and more having to coach people who either speak no English or speak some, but I can tell that they’re not understanding what I’m saying. Short of learning Spanish, which I do plan to do in the fall (when classes start at the local CC), do you have any tips?

Good question. Other than learning Spanish, which you’re already planning, I’m not at all sure what to advise. But I bet that someone is reading this who knows, so I’m throwing this out to you guys to weigh in on. What advice do you have?

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Yas V*

    I kind of agree with the anon comment. What I would do is speak out clearly the English instructions and if you feel they don't understand ask one of the bilingual staff to help.

    What you will find is that as you talk more and more about work they will pick up enough English to understand what you are asking.

    I know it might be difficult but what we introduced at work was when they are working they are to talk in English. That way it helps them improve their English skills and they may even be thankful for it. Once they grow in confidence they will help each other out.

    But I would personally pick up enough Spanish to say thank you, good job and hurry up. It will help keep a bond.

  2. Anonymous*

    Another option is to send these workers to an ESL-type class. A restaurant company hired my friend to teach its employees English (with a focus on restaurant terms).

  3. Anonymous*

    Spanish is a fairly easy language to pick up. It's good you are looking into a class at the local CC in the fall, but you should start looking into self-instruction for the time being. You can go to Barnes and Noble and get some workbooks for example; see if these have words for the home, food, and restaurant. Also, you can work with your crew and try to teach each other.

    The restaurant setting is fairly easy vocabulary. "Cocinar" (co-see-nar) is to cook. You cook in la cocina…which goes like "Usted cocina en la cocina." You might have someone who you can tell "Usted lava los platos" (wash the dishes).

    Once you pick up words, you can point to an item and say it in their language and then in English. For example, you can point to a steak (if you have it on the menu) and say "el bistec" and immediately follow it with "steak." Seeing it and hearing you at the same time will hopefully make the connection in their mind.

  4. Anonymous*

    I would recommend checking out your local library to get a jump start on the language learning. Many have language books and CDs that you can check out to start learning. Also, be sure to ask if they have any online language programs available. Mango languages (which is similar to Rosetta Stone) is available at some libraries. The best thing…it's all FREE!

  5. Anonymous*

    Write things down, if it's instructions for the day, compliments on what people do well, or suggestions for improvement. Sometimes people read a foreign language (English, in this case) better than they understand spoken words. Also the verbal words are spoken and then gone, but the written words are there to see later. And if it's written down, they can have a friend translate it for them later. Writing things down perhaps doesn't work so well for immediate instructions, like "take this order to table 12," but if you keep a notepad with you, you can write "Table 12" as you say it and at least the order will get to the right customers.

  6. Anonymous*

    Don't wait for a college class to learn Spanish–ask a bilingual employee to teach you some key phrases now. Immersion is the best way to learn.

  7. Anonymous*

    Get a kindle, download a program that translates languages, and you can easily translate your words in spanish. It's portable and they're more affordable now. In the meantime, see what ESL courses are available for your staff

  8. TheLabRat*

    I suck at learning languages but over the years I've:

    1) picked up a fair amount of restaurant specific spanish (and noticed that my co-workers have likewise picked up some restaurant specific english) out of necessity

    2) have discovered that it's easier than you think to communicate with a combination of hand gestures and language (which helps with my first point)

    My first 6 months or so of working in restaurants with lots of Spanish only speakers were a little difficult but you and the co-workers pick up more than you think you are very quickly.

  9. Melissa Cooley*

    I second the comment that one anonymous commenter made about ESL classes. In my state (WI), there are both community-based adult literacy councils that offer free classes/one-on-one tutoring to non-native English speakers and free ESL classes through the technical colleges.

    I worked for several years with literacy councils that offered excellent programming that helps people not only with work-based vocabulary, but also vocabulary for everyday activities. The increase in exposure helped them be bolder in using English in all circumstances and ended up improving their on-the-job performance, also.

  10. Cassie*

    I agree with Anonymous poster #1 – ask a bilingual employee to help. I'd also suggest writing stuff down, if possible, because that way they can ask a bilingual employee if they need clarification (or use a dictionary or something).

    In regards to requiring employees to speak English at work, I remember some discussion in the news not too long ago (here in California) and I recall something about it might be considered discriminatory. Only if it's a safety issue can employers require workers to speak a certain language. I don't remember the exact details, though.

    It would be good to learn key phrases in Spanish, which probably wouldn't be too difficult. But I would continue to speak in English to them (if possible) – coupled with gestures and facial expressions, I'm sure you'll do fine. Maybe even the workers that don't speak any English actually do understand some, but not enough that they would feel comfortable conversing in it. But I guess they would be able to understand the phrases that they would commonly hear on a daily basis, in a restaurant.

  11. Anonymous*

    WTF? Really? Employers can't require their employees to be able to speak English?

    While I understand some people are born speaking other languages, it is not something one cannot learn. And these laws are essentially putting the burden of learning Spanish on the English-speaking employers/ees.

    By this same logic, why should I have to know how to use a computer to get a job in some places? Isn't that discriminatory too?

    What really irritates me about this is the fact that I have been interviewed by a Spanish-speaking person whose English was poor and, as a result, did poorly in the interview and didn't get a job.

    How is THAT not discriminatory?

  12. Anne*

    I wouldn't look at communication as a reason you didn't get the job, I'd take a look at your attitude towards non-native english speakers, Anonymous #12. I wouldn't want to work with someone with that attitude towards me.
    The original question was: how do I effectively communicate with my kitchen crew, who mostly don't have strong english? You've got a lot of great suggestions already, but one I didn't see is- ask them what the easiest way for them to understand you is. Are they getting it verbally? Would they find it easier for you to (as already suggested) write things down? Or maybe they would be most comfortable with one of your bilingual staff being a translator. I don't think there's really a downside to asking them which way they would find easiest to understand. Who doesn't like their boss asking how they can help make their job easier/clearer/ more streamlined? And maybe they're understanding more than you think.

  13. Rebecca*

    Another excellent (and FREE) language-learning resource: podcasts! SpanishPod and Notes In Spanish are both fantastic. The latter focuses on peninsular Spanish (the Spanish they speak in Spain), though, so be aware of the lisping accent, and be careful using any slang they tell you about. Also, make sure you're going to SpanishPod and not SpanishPod101.

    Otherwise, I agree with stuff other people have brought up:
    – Use your bilingual employees — but be sure to recognize them for it. Don't just start saying "Hey, tell the other guys ___." Explain to them that you're going to need their help until you learn more Spanish and the other guys learn more English, and then be sure to reward them for the extra effort. If you can't give them a raise or another tangible benefit, and if your boss is itchy about giving them a title, then at least verbally praise and thank them a lot.
    – Write stuff down. Some of your workers may be illiterate, so this won't help them, but it can really help the ones who can read (think about it: how often do you hear an announcement over a loudspeaker and think "Wait, what, huh?" — and how often do you think that when reading a sign?).

  14. Anonymous*

    Anne, just to clarify. I was in high school then and did not yet have an opinion on the issue. If anything, that experience is a large chunk of what helped form the opnion I have on this issue today.

  15. Em-Dash*

    As someone working in a multi-lingual environment (and not Spanish — but very very different from English), I offer the following tips as well:
    1) speaking their language (at least some) is best, but you are already working on that and have lots of tips
    2) In English: SLOW DOWN and do not use slang or sports terms (hitting a homerun, striking out, etc). Keep your phrasing simple and cut the anecdotes if they are unnecessary.
    3) formulate your directions in different ways: Can you also write them or even include pictures/photos? Gesture when appropriate and don't use a monotone voice (if they did something good — make sure you aren't just saying the words, but that one can tell from your body language/inflection)
    4) Can you make sure that your labels or relevant instructions are in BOTH languages? Everyone learns that way — even strong speakers of the language.
    5) Make sure it is understood that if something isn't understood (also when YOU are speaking their language) that questions are appreciated and that it's important that they understand.
    6) In spanish, you will likely have an accent when you begin speaking, so as you get more comfortable you may also have to slow down in this language (probably hard to imagine right now).

    Have fun — because it really is rewarding to have a multi-lingual/cultural staff.

  16. Anonymous*

    Anon @ 3:06 AM
    The employees were already hired without English language skills. To now fire them for not speaking English strikes me as capricious and arbitrary. Your solution is a woulda-coulda-shoulda, the OP was asking for what to do with the situation already on his hands.

    It's also quite possible that the OP's restaurants' pay structure for kitchen workers (low pay) and the demographics of the area the restaurant is located in (large Hispanic population, disproportionately represented in low-income households) are combining to form a situation where there aren't that many applicants with good English skills to choose from and the Glorious Free Market is giving the restaurant only Spanish speakers as an option.

  17. Anonymous*

    Re: "WTF? Really? Employers can't require their employees to be able to speak English?"

    It amazes me that people don't get this. Do you think ads should be able to say "whites only", too?

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